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China-Iran relations a threat to ‘free world,’ says US State Dept official

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A US State Department official has warned that warming China-Iran relations pose a threat to the “free world” as China works to expand its presence in the Middle East at America’s expense.

Under President Xi Jinping, China has strengthened ties with an increasingly isolated Iran as US-China relations plummeted to an all-time low, presenting US lawmakers with new challenges on how to counter a growing adversary.

Since Xi’s first tour to the Middle East in 2016, China has worked to deepen its strategic cooperation with states across the Middle East. Most recently, there has been talk of Iran and China signing a 25-year strategic accord.

Dr. Peter Berkowitz, the Director of the US State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, warned that the accord would be “very bad news for the free world” if two of the world’s leading authoritarian regimes struck such a deal.

“Iran sows terrorism, death and destruction throughout the region – to be empowered by the People’s Republic of China would only intensify the threat,” he told Al Arabiya English.

In a wide-ranging interview, Berkowitz also criticized China’s treatment of the Uighur Muslim minority and spoke about the challenges China poses to the US, and how the US could respond as outlined in the recently released report “The Elements of the China Challenge.”

China and Iran

Talk of a new China-Iran accord has focused America’s attention on growing ties between Beijing and Tehran.

While China and Iran have worked together for years on trade matters this new development that includes a security component is significant because both China and Iran have global and regional ambitions and both have confrontational relationships with the US, a Foreign Policy article summarized.

But more broadly, China’s growing presence in the Middle East reverses the conventional narrative that China’s ambitions in the region are economic and spotlights that the East Asian mammoth now sees the Middle East as strategically important.

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While the US is actively planning to drawdown troop numbers in the region, Washington doesn’t want to see a Middle East more closely allied with China.

“It’s in the in the keen interest of the United States to strengthen our friends in the Middle East and strengthen the relations among our friends,” Berkowitz said.

The view from the US

From the US’ perspective, the challenge is to support its allies and constrain China, while also looking for areas to cooperate with Beijing.

“We need to work well with our allies. We need to support international organizations where they’re serving the purposes of freedom, reform them, whether or not we need to cooperate with China where we can, based on norms of fairness and reciprocity, we need to constrain and deter,” Berkowitz said.

Reducing reliance on China, including on critical supply chain items – like medical goods and high tech components – is key, Berkowitz said.

Protecting the Uighurs

Domestically, the Chinese government has condemned its minority Uighur Muslim population to detention centers, where their forced labor contributes to the production of goods sent around the world.

Estimates say that around 1 million of the total 11 million Uighurs have been interned in camps, subjected to forced sterilizations, ideological indoctrination, and forced labor.

US lawmakers have introduced the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which would require US companies to guarantee they do not use imprisoned or coerced workers from the region. However, apple lobbyists and other US companies that oppose the bill have tried to weaken the legislation, the Washington Post reported at the end of November.

Read more: State Department publishes plan to confront China’s rise, sustain US superpower role

Berkowitz declined to comment on how the US should ensure companies aren’t relying on forced Uighur labor, but he said that Washington and its allies should adopt measures that “impose costs on China for relying on the labor of men and women who are unjustly, indeed outrageously imprisoned against their will.”

China’s global reach

Globally, China has stepped up its foreign assistance under its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), building roads, bridges, ports, and digital infrastructure in many countries.

China and the US are now embroiled in a tit-for-tat trade war, and as China seeks to gain influence through BRI development projects, the US must find a way to keep traditional allies on their side and appeal to what Berkowitz described as new “friends and partners around the world.”

More than 60 countries have signed up to BRI projects or have shown interest in such infrastructure projects, according to the US-based Council for Foreign Relations.

Critics have labeled these projects a debt trap, pointing to a few high-profile failures. One example is in Sri Lanka, where after securing around $7 billion in loans and investment, authorities were forced to handover a port to China because they could not repay a loan. However, an August report from UK-based Chatham House challenged this “debt-trap diplomacy” narrative, saying “China’s development financing system is too fragmented and poorly coordinated to pursue detailed strategic objectives.”

Nonetheless, the US view is that China’s ambitious project to connect Asia with Africa and Europe via land and maritime routes is a bad deal.

“It’s not enough to simply preach that China is offering you bad deals,” Berkowitz said, recognizing that to keep allies on side, it must offer a better deal.

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He pointed to the recently signed Abraham Accords that formalized diplomatic ties between Israel and two Gulf nations, Bahrain and Israel.

“And that kind of work, bringing friends and partners together which enhance that enhances opportunity for trade and development that we need to engage in even more in order to meet the China challenge,” he said.

Digital surveillance

The digital infrastructure component of the BRI is especially worrying to the US.

The US has said that China can export “Orwellian tools” used for surveilling citizens to other autocratic regimes around the world under the guise of “so-called smart city development projects.”

“We have good reason to believe [the technology] have back doors, which will divert huge amounts of data from free countries unknowingly back to back to China,” Berkowitz said.

Over 60 countries as of 2019 – most with abysmal human rights records – have received Chinese artificial intelligence surveillance technology, a September report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank found. Tech from Chinese companies, including Huawei and ZTE, have wound up in Western countries too, including Germany, Spain, and France.

The US Department of Commerce, the UK and Sweden have banned Huawei technology, and in May, US President Trump extended a ban barring American companies from using telecommunications equipment made by firms posing a national security risk – targeting Huawei – through May 2021.

Deterring China

Beijing’s export of surveillance tech, expanding global footprint, and strategic shift to find allies in the Middle East, present a challenge for the US.

“It’s certainly a challenge indeed. You could call it the China challenge,” Berkowitz said, referencing the new report’s title.

Sanctions imposed on China are one method of pushing back, he said, adding that publicizing China’s abuses of the Uighurs and other religious and ethnic groups is another tool.

“And not least we can work with our friends and partners in regions around the world,” the State Department official said. “[This includes] in the Middle East, most certainly including the Gulf, in order to strengthen international organizations and make clear that dealings with China have to be placed upon a platform of international norms and not lawlessness.”